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A hospital's fight against hunger starts small but creates a big impact

Photograph courtesy of Nanticoke Health Services

As patients recover from surgery or illness in the hospital, they get medical attention and meals on a regular basis. But upon discharge, “Some patients comment that they are worried they won’t have enough food to last until the next month or until they get more funds for food,” says Lynette Taylor, Cura Hospitality patient services manager for Nanticoke Health Services in Seaford, Del.

“Others have stated that they don’t always have a ride to the store. … I will say that it has to be one of the scariest feelings in the world to know that you don’t have enough food to make it from one meal to the next, or to know where your next meal is going to come from. They are very happy when they see me coming with the boxes.”

The boxes Taylor is referring to are filled with nonperishable food collected from Nanticoke’s Healing Harvest Inpatient Food Closet—an outreach program that launched last March at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.

The hospital is located in rural Sussex County, Del., where 16% of adults are below the poverty level and 10% are food insecure. Last year, Taylor discovered that church-led food pantries were addressing the growing need in the community.

After discussing this increase with two other area hospitals, they decided to work on the issue together.

“Food always comes up as a determinant of health, and we want patients to have enough food as they recover and heal,” Taylor explains.

Identifying a need

The program was very limited at first. Nanticoke had to build an adequate inventory of food. Taylor also worked to refine the process and filters used to determine patients in need. As part of the hospital’s intake questionnaire, patients are now asked if they have trouble getting food. If the answer is yes, the hospital’s dietitian is alerted and conducts an interview with the patient.

Once a patient is marked as food insecure, an order goes down to food services. That’s when Tanyell Moore, Cura director of dining services for Nanticoke, gets involved.

“We work with the dietitian to come up with a list, then the patient signs a form that frees the hospital from liability,” Moore says. “We send the patient home with two weeks’ worth of nutritious, nonperishable food.”

Patients also receive a voucher to one of the community food pantries for meat, produce and dairy. Nanticoke’s goal is not to be a long-term resource, but to provide enough healthy food for recovery and share the next steps for finding long-term resources.

Stocking the shelves

In the beginning, Nanticoke relied on food donations from the public and employees, collecting cans and boxes in bins set up outside the hospital cafeteria and surgery waiting areas.

Then the Nanticoke Health Foundation stepped up, offering help with grants and fundraising.

“We put out grants to local service organizations and companies and were able to get money to purchase more food,” Taylor says. A very large corporate donation during the holidays sweetened the pot.

The Foundation receives the funds and holds them for Moore’s dining team. When Moore makes up the kitchen’s shopping list for Sysco, Nanticoke’s distributor, she can now add essentials for the Healing Harvest food closet directly to the order to be reimbursed by the Foundation. Volunteers then sort the food, take inventory and stock the shelves of the food closet.

Hospitality at the heart of outreach

Cura has trained the food services team and volunteers in customer service skills to ensure they interact with patients in a friendly way.

“Food services is the face of the program; that’s who the patients and their families see,” Taylor says.

“They’re really excited about the care shown them,” Moore adds. “Even the nurses and other employees get involved and show lots of compassion.”

One year later, the food closet is expanding its reach to serve more than the hospital’s inpatient population. Cancer patients on special diets, day surgery folks and emergency room cases within Nanticoke Health Services now have access to food. Volunteers even prepack color-coded bags for the homeless.

“We have also partnered with the local senior center for connections to homebound meal services,” says Sharon Harrington, director of marketing and outreach. And physicians’ offices in the network are beginning to connect with the program.

“Recipients tell me that it is a huge blessing to them … or I am a blessing … and it is a good thing that the hospital is doing,” Taylor says. “Every person that I can help to relieve the fear of food insecurity makes me glad that I decided to be part of the Healing Harvest program.”

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